Letting biblical authority impact the local church

Five principles that enrich Bible study in the preaching context

Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

In the first part of this article (May 1998), we examined a fraud that preachers often succumb to: the misuse of Scriptures to deceive both oneself and one's congregation by not letting the Bible speak for itself, but rather letting our ideas and concepts speak forth, buttressed by a sprinkling of biblical verses. We also posed a pointed question to all preachers of the Word: Are there simple principles of Bible study that mark out the difference between using the Word and receiving it in order to obey it?

This article will argue for a five-step method to let the Bible speak for itself and touch the hearts of the congregation with what God has to say. If these simple principles are followed, I am convinced, we can avoid the two extremes that sometimes characterize Bible study and preaching: the extremism of self-centered manipulation of God's Word that finds its outlet in such eccentric and bizarre interpretations of David Koresh and his ilk; and the extremism of warming, instead of warning, the ego of the hearer by being indifferent to the claims of God's Word on the life of every human being.

In the context of such dangers, it is imperative that safeguards be put in place so that the Bible will be allowed to speak with its own voice and not be the well-intentioned plaything of pious or freakish minds. Here are five principles that can be helpful in letting the Word speak.

1. Approach the Bible with prayer

Study the Bible in an atmosphere of self-distrust, prayer, and a willingness to obey (John 7:17). Our hearts are inherently deceitful (Jer. 17:9). By nature we lack a teachable spirit. It doesn't matter how much Greek we know or how many degrees we accumulate, if we don't have a teachable spirit, our learning is worth nothing. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study (1 Cor. 2:14; James 1:5).

According to 2 Thessalonians 2:10, the knowledge of God comes from a willingness to receive the truth from God no matter what it costs. The gifts of God are free but they are not cheap; they can cost us everything our life, family, friends, and reputation. But if we are willing to find the truth no matter what the cost, we will receive it.

Bible study needs to begin with authentic prayer. The prayer I'm suggesting might go something like this: "Lord, I want the truth no matter what the cost to me personally." That's a hard prayer to pray. But if we pray that prayer, we will begin to receive God's truth. And we will also pay the price.

2. Use a variety of translations

When doing serious study of the Bible, those who have no access to Hebrew and Greek should consult a variety of translations of the biblical text. Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). These limitations can be minimized by comparing several translations. Where most translators agree, the translation of the original is probably fairly plain and can be safely followed. When there is wide disagreement between translators, the original is probably difficult or ambiguous. Wide deviations from the typical translation pattern tend to signal a translator's biases.

Where translation patterns indicate that the original text is clear, we can safely base our authority on the translated text. Where the translation patterns indicate that a text we are seeking to understand is ambiguous or difficult to translate, it would not be safe to base our teaching and practice on a particular translation of that text.

3. Study the clear texts

If we want really to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, we need to spend the majority of our time in those sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible regarding which there is little disagreement among Christians, while other texts vex even the Greek and Hebrew scholars. So an extremely important safeguard in the study of Scripture is to spend most of our time in the sections that are reasonably clear and preach from these. The clear texts of Scripture ground the reader in the great central themes of the biblical message and safeguard the interpreter against the ridiculous use of texts that are more ambiguous.

If we spend the majority of our time on texts like the seals and trumpets of Rev elation or Daniel 11, we will go crazy. One of the major tactics of people who misuse the Bible is to take ambiguous texts, develop creative solutions to the problems they find there, and then use those solutions as the basis for their theology. Such interpreters end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message there doesn't fit the theology that they have developed from the difficult texts.

4. Cultivate a broad reading of the Bible

Another important principle is to spend the majority of your study time reading the Bible rather than searching a concordance. An obsession with detail can lead us away from the central thrust of the Bible. The problem is that we can put Bible texts together in such a way as to prove almost anything we want to prove. Without safeguards, concordance study tends to focus on texts apart from their contexts.

Concordance study is all the more dangerous when it is done on a computer. Thanks to the computer it is possible to spend hundreds of hours in "Bible study" without ever actually studying the Bible it self. The meanings we can draw from such study may be extremely impressive, yet have nothing to do with the original writer's intention. It can be like taking a pair of scissors and cutting fifty texts out of the Bible, tossing them like a salad in a bowl, and finally pulling them out one by one and saying, "This is from the Lord." Whether the concordance is a print or a computer version, the process results in putting the interpreter in control of how the biblical text impacts on his or her understanding of truth.

When we read biblical books from be ginning to end, the biblical author is in control of the order and flow of the mate rial. The author leads us naturally from one idea to the next, and our exposure to the Bible is not controlled by any need arising from within ourselves or from our back ground. Broad reading of the Bible, therefore, anchors the interpreter in the intentions of the original writers and helps the interpreter to get the "big picture" that provides the best safeguard against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading naturally encourages a teachable spirit and helps us see the text as it was in tended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible.

5. Give attention to peer criticism

Finally, we need to give careful attention to the criticism of peers (people who search the Bible as we do), especially those who disagree with us or who are competent in the original languages and the tools of exegesis. As I mentioned before, one of our primary problems in biblical understanding is that each of us has a natural bent to self-deception (Jer. 17:9). That self-deception runs so deep that sometimes, even if we are using the original text, praying, and doing a lot of general reading in the clear texts of the Bible, it is still possible to end up in a completely bizarre place. The best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one's own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.

It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. Nevertheless, such criticisms are particularly valuable when they come from people we naturally disagree with be cause they will see things in the text that we would never see because of our blind spots and defense mechanisms. Others may be just as unteachable as we are, but if they have a different set of blind spots than we do, they will see things in the text that we would miss and we will see things that they would miss.

Interpreters can see much more clearly in relationship than they can individually. God uses our disagreements to drive us back to the text for fresh insight and understanding. What counts is to help each other see what is actually there in the text, not what we want or need to see.


One of the greatest temptations of the pulpit is to use the Word of God to enhance our own reputation or to undergird our own opinions. Even when we are aware of the dangers, it is natural for us to deceive ourselves and to see what we want to see in the Bible. This is all the more true if we have a high view of the inspiration of the Bible. Developing lifelong habits of prayer and self-distrust, of openness to a variety of translations, of broad reading in the clear texts of Scripture, and of a willingness to learn from our peers can gradually fortify our minds on the solid rock of God's Word. Then we will become teachers of the Word rather than mere users.

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Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

July 1998

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